A Comprehensive Guide to Headless WordPress: Everything You Need to Know

Headless WordPress Guide

WordPress is the most popular content management system (CMS) on the planet. As of March 2022, it powered 43.3% of all websites in one way or the other. And its popularity seems to be growing every day.

Although extremely popular, user-friendly, and secure, WordPress does come with a few downsides. The biggest concern for developers is its limitation to platform-specific plugins, themes, and tools. If you want to step out of this sphere, it just won’t work.

With new content channels entering the market every month, conventional WordPress can keep you from expanding your content reach. That’s where a headless WordPress comes in. It comes with a multichannel approach, higher performance, and better flexibility.

In this guide, we will talk about:

Excited to learn about Headless WordPress? Let’s dive right in!

A. What is Headless WordPress?

In a website, there are two interfaces, the front-end, and the back-end. The front-end consists of a display or the web pages we see when we visit a website. The back-end is where the scripts and the content database gets stored on a server. You have to access the back-end to create, delete, and manage content, among other website features.

In a conventional WordPress CMS, both front- and back-ends are connected or coupled. Most people love using traditional content management systems because it is relatively easier to manage, not to mention cost-competitive.

A headless CMS or headless WordPress is different from its traditional counterpart. Here, both the front- and back-end are separate or decoupled. The name headless comes from the fact that the front-end or the Head works independently of the back-end or the Body.

B. How Does Headless WordPress Work?

Now that you have understood what headless WordPress means, let’s see how it works. When you move to headless WordPress from its traditional counterpart, you can continue uploading, editing, and managing content. The difference lies in how the content gets displayed.

In headless WP, instead of sending the content to the front-end directly, it gets routed through a REST API. In other words, the WordPress REST API keeps the content management features but eliminates the need to use themes and plugins to display your content.

Naturally, headless WordPress has no control over how your content is displayed. But it gives you the freedom to publish your content on multiple channels without the constraints of a traditional system. You have to use a channel-specific front-end application to see how your content looks. That’s how a headless WordPress CMS works.

C. How to Set Up Headless WordPress?

If you already have a WordPress CMS, you can convert it into a headless CMS. You can either do headless WordPress development manually (if you like that sort of thing) or use plugins.

Let’s check out how.

1. Manual Setup

Since AWS is one of the most popular hosting providers, let’s talk about setting up headless WordPress using AWS.

  • Create an AWS Account

    First things first, you will need an AWS account, if you already haven’t got one. It is a simple process. However, remember to get a suitable plan that works for your headless CMS, preferably the Amazon S3 tier.

  • Create a Static Copy of Your Website

    In this step, you will need to install WordPress to use it as the back-end of your site. You can customize the front-end later when you want. Ideally, you should host the back end to a different host provider.

    But if you don’t want to pay for another web hosting provider, you can go for a local installation. This, you can do by using tools such as XAMPP or Local by Flywheel, among others.

    Once your back-end installation is in place, customize your website the way you want. Get it ready for creating a static copy. You can use the WP2Static plugin to create the same. Feel free to use a different plugin if you want.

    If you are using WP2Static, access the website’s settings from the WP2Static tab in your dashboard. It’ll prompt you directly to the Deploy Static Website tab.

    Once the tab opens:

    • Add the website URL to the Destination URL Box
    • Select Amazon S3 from the topmost dropdown menu (Where will you host the optimized version of your site?)
  • Auto-Deploy the Static Pages

    After selecting the Amazon S3 option, you will see a new window with several options. Keep your access key ID and secret access key handy as you will need this information to deploy your static website.

    • Enter the keys in the suitable fields
    • Select the region where your AWS bucket was created
    • Scroll to the bottom of the page
    • Click on the Start static site export button

    It may take a while, depending on the size of your website and the internet speed. When the deployment is complete, you can see the live static version of your WP site.

2. Set Up Using Plugins

The second option you have is to use a plugin. Plugins can surely make your job easier. However, depending on the size of your website and the features you want to include, you may need to use more than one plugin. Better consider working with a seasoned WordPress development agency to make this job easy for you.

Three of our favorite plugins are:

  • WPGraphQL

    WPGraphQL is a free, open-source WordPress plugin. It separates your CMS from your presentation layer. You can use it to provide an extendable GraphQL schema and API for any WordPress site.

  • FaustWP

    You need to use the FaustWP plugin in conjunction with Faust.js. Together, they create a decoupled front-end to authenticate with WordPress through GraphQL mutations and REST API endpoints. Think of it as the connecting link between the Faust.js-powered front-end app and a WordPress back-end.

  • WPGraphQL Yoast SEO Addon

    WPGraphQL Yoast SEO Addon enables Yoast SEO Support for WPGraphQL. You will get SEO support for your WPGraphQL plugin.

While these are the plugins that we frequently use and have come to love, there are a few good choices out there. The two of them are:

  • WP Gatsby

    WP Gatsby is an open-source WordPress plugin. You can use it to optimize your WordPress site to work as a data source for Gatsby.

  • Headless Mode

    Headless Mode sets up a redirect for all users trying to access your site. Only the REST API and WP GraphQL API requests will go through. You can continue using the standard post editor.

D. Best Framework Options for Headless WordPress

The success of your headless WordPress front-end depends on choosing a suitable framework. This is perhaps the most critical aspect of headless WordPress development. Here are a few frameworks your headless WordPress could use.

1. React JS

Offered by Facebook, React.js is a popular framework. You can create visually appealing interactive digital experiences using React JS. Think Progressive Internet Programs (PWAs) and Single Page Software (SPAs).

2. Faust JS

Faust.js is a Headless WordPress Framework. It comes with features like static site generation, server-side rendering, TypeScript, data-fetching, post and page previews, and more.

3. Gatsby JS

Our personal favorite, Gatsby.js is a React-based open-source framework that offers exceptional performance, scalability, and security. It is a static web page and site generator.

4. Vue JS

Another versatile framework, Vue.js is popular among developers, especially when it comes to headless WordPress. You can build fast, robust, and adaptable web apps or sites using Vue.js for the front-end with Headless WordPress as the back-end.

5. Next JS

Next.js is an open-source, minimalistic framework built on top of Node.js. It comes with features like server-side rendering and generating static websites.

6. Angular JS

Maintained by Google, Angular.js is an excellent alternative to React. It is more suitable for creating single-page web applications. It is currently in long-term support mode.

7. Foundation

Foundation is one of the most advanced and responsive front-end frameworks out there. It comes with templates and grids that help you build HTML and CSS-based front-ends.

8. jQuery

jQuery is not a framework but a fast, small, and feature-rich JavaScript library. It’s one of the most popular JS libraries. However, for headless WP, you need only the jQuery UI library.

E. Benefits of Headless WordPress

A headless WordPress CMS does offer a few unique benefits, especially for mid to large-sized WP websites. Here’s what it offers.

1. Better Front-End Flexibility

Front-end flexibility is perhaps the most applauded benefit of a headless WordPress system. With headless WP, you can:

  • Play with different programming languages
  • Work with various tools or applications
  • Customize the design without changing the content
  • Use front-end frameworks like React, Faust, Next, etc.
  • Scale the front-end with ease

2. Enhanced Security

Cyberattacks like DDoS are all too common nowadays. The first half of 2021 saw 5.4 million DDoS attacks, an 11% increase compared to the first half of 2020. Mitigating the risks and damages of such attacks is very challenging.

With front- and back-end separated, headless WordPress is less susceptible to DDoS attacks. The lack of active web servers and a reachable database means a considerably smaller attack surface. So, your website remains less likely to get torpedoed by these cyberattacks.

3. Better Performance

Dynamic page rendering is at the heart of conventional WordPress. In technical terms, WordPress relies on PHP to generate a webpage. Moreover, it has to fetch all resources from the database and put them in a single file. This takes time and slows down your website.

However, REST API renders content much faster than the PHP process. Moreover, no plugins and themes are weighing your overall system down. This is why headless WordPress tends to be smoother, faster, and highly responsive.

4. Increased Scalability

Traditional WordPress development allows you to build excellent websites for computer and mobile devices. That’s about it. Adding features or user experiences outside of the WordPress sphere is not possible.

You can’t scale your content to other channels like IoT devices, smart speakers, digital displays, and smart TVs, among others. With the number of active IoT devices expected to reach 25.4 billion by 2030, multichannel publishing is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

That’s what headless WordPress makes a whole lot easier. It empowers you to tap into new content channels seamlessly and quickly. That’s scalability 101 in today’s growing digital landscape.

5. Diverse Technical Skills

In traditional WordPress, your tech skills remain limited to platform-specific technologies. Of course, it makes you an expert, but without the freedom to explore new technologies that may have more to offer than meets the eye.

With headless WP, you are free to explore new technologies. You can work with technologies that are in demand or offer better features and flexibility. The sky is the limit.

F. Drawbacks of Headless WordPress

Although headless WordPress is a brilliant discovery for you, it does come with a few drawbacks. You should consider the following shortfalls before taking the plunge.

1. No WYSIWYG editor

This could be a major turn-off for many people, especially those not so tech-savvy. With headless WordPress, you’ll lose your live preview, ergo WYSIWYG editor. This leads to increased developer dependence. Not just major or minor issues, you also need developers for content management. That reduces your content agility considerably.

2. Increasingly Complex Structure

Yes, headless WordPress is very flexible.

But, with flexibility comes complexity.

Whenever you add a new front-end experience, your structural complexity also increases. Essentially, you have one more piece of the system to look after – update, maintenance, and everything in between. In other words, hiring WordPress developers with expertise is vital.

3. Increasingly Expensive

The flexibility also comes at a cost. You have to build front-end experience from the ground up. With every new digital experience, you have to spend more money, time, and resources on creation, integration, deployment, and maintenance. This can put a serious dent in your overall budget.

G. Does SEO Fundamentals Change for Headless WordPress?

The SEO doesn’t really change that much. But you may have to lay the groundwork from scratch. And to strengthen the base, make sure to consider the following best practices.

1. Schema.org Structured Data

Use the Schema.org structured data markup schema as it helps increase your search engine visibility. It also increases the likelihood of your instructional content, such as guides and tutorials, showing up as featured snippets.

2. Meta Tags

They are perhaps the most critical part of your SEO. When using meta tags, keep:

  • Title tags under 70 characters
  • Meta Descriptions under 160 characters and relevant
  • Titles and descriptions keyword optimized

3. SEO Audits

Regular SEO audits using tools like Google Analytics or SemRush can go a long way in keeping your SEO to the point. Plugins like WPGraphQL Yoast SEO Addon can also help in improving your SEO.

4. Static Site Generator

Many static site generators (SSGs) like Gatsby, Hugo, and Pelican have built-in SEO. You can tackle most technical SEO challenges with just a few clicks.

5. Use a CDN

Content delivery networks like Cloudflare, StackPath, and Sucuri help optimize page speed. As you may already know, it is one of the critical SEO factors.

6. Optimize Images

Another way to improve your SEO is to optimize your images and media. You should:

  • Use Lazy Loading for images and video
  • Use images in the SVG or WebP format
  • Add relevant Alt Tags to all images
  • Add Open Graph metatags for images

7. HTTPS Everywhere

With users becoming more concerned about their safety, it will never hurt to add an extra layer of security to your website. So, use HTTPS everywhere.

Depending on the size of your website, frequency of adding fresh content, and your multi-channel presence, you may have to take additional SEO steps. Moreover, SEO is not a one-and-done thing. You’ll have to keep updating it as search engines and online trends evolve. It’s better to consult an SEO Agency to plan your long-term SEO.

H. When You Shouldn’t Go with Headless WordPress?

Yes, headless WordPress is a brilliant piece of technology. But it does involve a lot of work. So, the question is, is it worth investing the time, effort, and money?

And the short answer is:

Headless WordPress is not for everyone.

Make sure to consider the following factors before jumping the gun.

1. Higher Skill Set

Although you can enjoy greater flexibility and customization, it requires a diverse skillset besides WordPress development. The more front-end technologies you use, the more skills you will need. If you are going to handle your website all by yourself, a headless CMS can be challenging to build and maintain.

For starters, tutorials can get you only so far. Moreover, learning a new programming language or front-end framework takes time. This will delay your content delivery.

2. Challenges For Non-Developers

Not everyone involved in handling a website is as tech-savvy as your developers. With the features of WYSIWYG editor and live preview missing, non-technical team members like writers, editors, and marketers will struggle to update content in headless WordPress.

That said, working in a split environment also requires practice and willingness to adapt. In other words, new developers might also find it challenging to work with headless WordPress.

3. Double The Maintenance

Having a separate front- and back-end means double the servers and double the maintenance. It also increases your headache twice as much. It’s worth putting yourself through all this ordeal if you are getting your money’s worth. Otherwise, just stick to your current WordPress CMS.

4. Lack Of Live Preview

As mentioned before, the lack of live preview and the WYSIWYG editor can be a big letdown, especially for non-technical team members. Plus, your headless CMS may not work adequately at first or even in the future as you add new front-end channels. That means you’ll spend considerable time fixing bugs etc.

5. Expensive

This is an important consideration. Coding a custom front-end is not just time-consuming but also expensive. Every time you tap into a new digital experience, you are putting additional long-term maintenance into the mix. You’ll need to hire more developers and spend more money on hosting and security, among other things.

I. Future Outlook of Headless WordPress

All said and done, headless WordPress is here to stay. As with any new technology, users will take some time to understand and leverage it. But, we will see its popularity going nowhere but up in the coming future.

And here’s why:

  • If anything, separating the front- and back-end is becoming easier as new plugins and solutions enter the market. As switching to headless WordPress becomes effortless, more people will consider going headless.
  • The increasing prevalence of IoT devices and other digital channels will create more demand for headless WordPress. Right now, it seems to be the best answer to this burgeoning trend.
  • It’s a great place to experiment. Developers, especially those who love customizations, can play around with libraries and frameworks or programming languages of their choice. That’s one of the reasons why developers are likely to welcome headless WordPress development even in the future.
  • Lastly, it offers the best of both worlds. You get the flexibility and the excellent WordPress back-end. To many, that’s a catch despite a few obvious shortcomings.

Conclusion

Maybe you have never heard of headless WordPress before, or you have, and you are thinking of going headless. In either case, you will need to understand what this new content management system is, how it works, its benefits and drawbacks and whether you should consider investing in it. To that end, this short guide should prove helpful.

If you want to move from traditional to headless WordPress or need more information, feel free to contact us. Our experts will help you, from start to finish.

  • Siddharth is a Technical Lead (WordPress and JS Frameworks) at E2M and possesses 9 years of solid expertise in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, WordPress, OpenCart, Magento, and custom web development. He is fond of learning new technologies that offer strategic solutions to the challenges being faced by our clients.